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The Virginian: Holocaust (1970)
The class of season eight
The upsetting sight of Shiloh reduced to a pile of steaming rubble (in a matte painting) is only the beginning of exemplary episode full of emotional upheaval. Expert script by Robert Van Scoyk runs the gamut from desolation and despair to hope and recovery, testing the acting chops of the entire cast of regulars, who come through with flying colors. There's also a climactic shootout at a remote cabin and a twisty whodunit finale. Story's thoughtful statement, very much in keeping with the day's anti-establishment trends, advocates the rights of independent ranchers, who live on the land and are its natural stewards, against the greedy Eastern combines that only seek to exploit. There were a number of fine episodes in season eight, but none better than this one.
The Virginian: Smile of a Dragon (1964)
Hard times hard to swallow
The Chinese girl who accompanies Trampas during some hard times is played by Japanese actress Miyoshi Umeki, which, in ethnic terms, is the equivalent of a cowboy wearing his left boot on his right ear. Compounding the felony is Umeki's calculated, kittenish performance, that doesn't click with McClure. Then there's the absurdly hard to swallow plot. Busy TV westerns director Andrew V. McLaglen had his hands full keeping the show on the road, which he manages to do rather well, considering the circumstances. Borden Chase was given credit for the story (such as it is), but it seems clearly patterned after the 1960 Audie Murphy film "Hell Bent for Leather," which was pretty far-fetched in its own right but feels like neo-realism compared to this.
Fanchon, the Cricket (1915)
Pickford rarity is no classic
A rare screening of this obscure Mary Pickford title was one of the most anticipated events from the 2014 Cinefest in Syracuse, N.Y., but, as is so often the case, rarity doesn't equate with quality. The film, lamely directed by James Kirkwood, lacks technique. Kirkwood keeps the actors grouped in tight bunches, more like a faithful sheepdog than a movie director, reflecting none of the dynamic energy of films from the same period produced under the auspices of D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille and Thomas Ince. The lovely and entrancing Pickford is always worth watching, but her role here doesn't provide enough dramatic weight, and nothing she does lingers in the memory except for a lively scrap with her real-life brother, Jack Pickford, who plays a bratty villager. Mary's rather homely sister, Lottie, also has a role, making this picture perhaps the only extant example of all three Pickford siblings appearing in the same film.
High quality at low cost
Invigorating yarn manages big scale on a limited budget, reflecting the expertise of director William Witney, a past master at making chicken salad out of questionable ingredients. The plot is baldly lifted from Kipling's Captains Courageous, except that the rich, spoiled, bad boy overdue for tough love is changed to a rich, spoiled, very bad man. Plutocrat Paul Leland (played by Linden Chiles) wallows in his cocoon of privilege, cozily certain that the world is for sale and he's got the price. Script's hopeful contention that hard knocks can awaken the humanity in even a snob as big as Leland is at least a thought worth holding. Gregarious Slim Pickens, long before his famous campfire scene in "Blazing Saddles," plays the cattle drive cook.
The Virginian: The Storm Gate (1968)
McClure's carefree entrance is iconic: Trampas slowly rides uphill with a leg lazily crossed over his saddle horn and idly whistling a tune. Trouble awaits though the closer he gets to childhood chum Jason Crowder. The manipulative bunco artist Crowder (played diabolically well by Burr DeBenning) is so egotistical that his real joy derives more from the power and control he can exert through his con scheme than the money he can swindle. Talkative drama doesn't have a great deal going for it apart from the performances of McClure, DeBenning and Susan Oliver as Crowder's loyal, miserable wife, but it's enough. Husky Scott Brady, former star of "Shotgun Slade," a bottom-feeder from the heyday of western series, plays Crowder's ramrod.
The shared affection between Lee J. Cobb's Judge Garth and Roberta Shore as his daughter Betsy helped the series gain a foothold with family audiences that most westerns couldn't obtain. Their interaction here is more involving than the plot's vanishing corpse gimmick and ensuing melodramatic complications. Garth wants Betsy to have a finishing school education based on some vague Victorian notion about taking her place in society. Betsy thinks his sense of propriety is misplaced and can't understand what learning piano sonatas and the correct way to curtsy has to do with living on a cattle ranch. This conflict puts a strain on their relationship, which the viewer hopes will survive undamaged in the end.
The Virginian: The Substitute (1969)
No-names hit the mark
Very modest production guest-starring non-household names Dennis Cooney and Beverlee McKinsey emerges as spicy little drama, with a prickly, it-could-happen-to-you plot line that gains tension precipitously under Anton Leader's direction. Unknowns McKinsey and Cooney fill their deftly written parts admirably: She's sympathetic as a loose woman desperately snatching at a chance for security, and his greedy, mendacious character is cordially hateful. McClure, squirming under the tight frame he's caught in, supplies all the star wattage the episode needs, and veteran dyspeptic heavy Ken Lynch grunts on the good guys' side for a change as a weary but conscientious lawman.
Revamped, renamed series opens for season nine with spaghetti western theme music, a broad, black hat for The Virginian, a mustache for Trampas and a new owner for Shiloh in the person of Col. Alan MacKenzie, a rugged ex-British army officer (played by former MGM swashbuckler Stewart Granger) with a fresh set of principles for running a ranch and the resolve to back it up with his own fists and firearms. This leaves an awful lot of down time for Drury and McClure, a fact noticed by series fans concerned that too much had changed. Potentially action-filled story goes in a calmer direction, but with compensatory sizable parts for screen beauties Elizabeth Ashley and Martha Hyer.
The Virginian: A Woman of Stone (1969)
Soapy story slides into banality on a surface of convenient coincidences. Bethel Leslie is quite good though as an exhausted woman, worn down by years of drudgery on an Indian reservation, who doesn't relish the difficult task of re-adjusting to white society. Western fans will be intrigued by a rare, late-career appearance by former prolific cowboy star Tim Holt, who'd hung up his spurs with the death of the B-western in the fifties. Holt, in his prime, had found time for roles in classic films of John Ford, Orson Welles and John Huston, and he's perfectly acceptable here as a rancher more than a little irrational where Indians are concerned.
The Virginian: Family Man (1969)
A warm glow
Joseph Pevney, a top Universal director in the fifties, when he worked with such luminaries as James Cagney, Joan Crawford and Debbie Reynolds, exhibits cinematic flair and sound judgment as he guides young Tim Matheson through a challenging role in this cuddly little story that casts a warm glow. Jim Horn's attraction to a pregnant abandoned wife (played by girl-next-door dreamboat Darleen Carr) spirals into an emotional bond after he assists her delivery. He thinks the compassion he's feeling must be true love. But is it really? Pevney's tasteful direction and Matheson's believable confusion keep the viewer engaged.